Shaun Donovan, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a Harvard-trained architect, recently attended the ground-breaking ceremony for Via Verde, a mixed-income apartment community in the South Bronx that he says exemplifies the Obama administration’s “fundamentally different” approach to housing—a move away from the Corbusian, tabula rasa model to one that supports local visions of site design. RECORD’s Bryant Rousseau spoke with Donovan, 44, about the stimulus package, his focus on planning, and the opportunity for architects to play a larger role in transforming communities.

U.S. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan
Photo © Kristine Larsen
U.S. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan

Bryant Rousseau: When the debate about the economic stimulus package was raging, architects had high hopes that the Recovery Act would provide a significant boost to their work, especially with regards to designing schools. It's fair to say they were disappointed with where the money was eventually directed. Can you give me a statistical sense of the impact the $13.6 billion in stimulus funding allocated to HUD has had on the architecture profession?

Shaun Donovan: Obviously, architects are deeply involved in the design of multi-family housing. And without the Recovery Act, we would not have any multi-family construction going on—it would be stopped dead in its tracks, along with all the jobs and the design work that goes with it.

[Even] in good times, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program [which received billions of dollars in stimulus support] makes up half of all new multi-family construction. Today, when the market has slowed down so much, it's an even more critical piece of ensuring that multi-family design and construction continues at all.

So for any architect who works in multi-family development, the Recovery Act, and the billions it allocated to multifamily financing, has been absolutely critical. In terms of the overall job numbers, the more than 20,000 jobs that have already been created [as attributed to HUD’s stimulus spending], we don't have a specific breakdown of how many architects that accounts for. But for architects working in rental or multifamily housing, every one of those jobs is due to the Recovery Act.

BR: HUD’s Recovery Act dollars have financed the renovation of more than 150,000 units. But what about new construction?

SD: If you look at the tax credit investments we're making through the Recovery Act, those dollars alone will make up more than 120,000 units. Not all of those will be new construction, but a large share will be. So, hundreds of thousands of units will be continued and completed because of the Recovery Act.

BR: Moving away from the aggregate numbers, what about the anecdotal? Tell us about a specific project where HUD’s Recovery Act dollars are creating design jobs, improving the nation's housing stock, and facilitating urban development.  

SD: I was recently in Baltimore to break ground on a project called City Arts [designed by Hord/Coplan/Macht]. It's a very interesting example of artist housing that will incorporate design and gallery space, supporting a broader revitalization in the community.

One of the things that I see consistently is Recovery Act projects creating ripple effects that move through a neighborhood, enabling other projects to move forward where a developer may have had real questions about the project’s viability. There is a confidence that emerges when you see construction continuing through a downturn. It helps send the message to surrounding properties and surrounding communities that we're moving forward, that there is hope.

BR: What are your top priorities for the next 12 months?

SD: Broadly speaking, our national housing policy has been too focused on home ownership and not enough on rental housing and creating sustainable communities.  HUD was able to get funding for our new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. That will be a critical priority in our next budget, to continue funding that investment. The federal effort to support sustainable, smart planning, at both the local and the regional level, is a major priority for this administration—and architects and urban planners will play an incredibly important role in that effort.

One of the lessons we can take from the foreclosure crisis is not about financial products; it’s about the geography of our metropolitan areas. Look at the places hardest hit: the exurbs of Las Vegas and Phoenix or areas in California and Florida, where you have isolated developments, two-hour-long commutes to jobs, and a lack of transportation options. Those are the places that have lost the most value in this crisis. It’s a lesson about how we think about our communities, how we invest in them.

BR: How do you factor effective planning into allocation of HUD dollars?

SD: What the budget will accomplish beyond just an investment in more sustainable housing is an investment in planning itself—$140 million in the 2010 budget, $100 million of which is going to a competition for regional planning efforts; and $40 million, combined with about $35 million in Department of Transportation funds, will be put toward local planning efforts.

There's never been this scale of federal investment in supporting sophisticated planning efforts at the community or metropolitan level. That will drive the ability—particularly at a time when state and local budgets have been impacted so desperately—for communities to bring together central cities with suburban cities, to really begin to integrate their transportation efforts, their housing efforts. It's an investment in planning that we've never seen before at the federal level.

BR: Is that difficult sell to make to Congress? It is a radically different focus for HUD.

SD: There were some initial concerns about whether this is the federal government dictating how local communities should look and how they should develop. We were able to overcome those concerns for a couple reasons.

One is that every elected official is hearing this [a need for smart planning] from their constituents, whether they're from an urban community, a suburban community, even a rural community. The average American family spends more than 50 percent of their income on housing and transportation. People want more time with their families, they want transportation options. We're fed up with not having more ability to be connected to the things we care about, whether that's jobs or schools or retail.

The second thing is the approach we're taking is fundamentally different from what the federal government did a half a century ago with urban renewal. When HUD was created in 1965, urban renewal was looked at with communities as a sort of tabula rasa, to be wiped clean and then begun again. If you look at the design of public housing, it was the Corbusian model—you really couldn't tell where a building was. It was a federal response that was really disconnected from local communities, local choices, local character.

What we're seeing today is that we're here to support local efforts; it has to be driven by the vision of the community. It's not "we're from the federal government, we're here to tell you what your community should look like." It's us being able to provide the resources, but also the technological assistance, the best practices, to allow communities to realize their own vision and build off their own assets. That's a fundamental difference that has allowed Congress and communities to get more excited about the approach we're taking.

BR: What is the role an architect should play in this transformation of communities?

SD: Having gone into architecture because I wanted to design affordable housing, one of the things I felt strongly about is that we lost a whole generation of architects.

Modernism had a very strong sense of social or even moral responsibility. Yet, because of the direction that urban renewal went, because of the direction of public housing, there was a disillusionment among architects.

Frankly, there also was a disillusionment in the broader society with the role of architecture and architects in creating a federalist vision of what communities should look like—a vision that didn’t allow for community voice. Unfortunately, that led to a disengagement of architecture and architects from affordable housing, and from social responsibility.

What I see starting to happen around the country are opportunities for architecture and architects to step back into a dialogue with communities, particularly at a time when the housing crisis has decimated neighborhoods. There’s an enormous opportunity to bring design, in the best sense, to low-income communities, to make sure that everyone benefits from it. And I sense it when I go to architecture schools, when I talk to architects—there’s a reengagement. The president has helped to get young people excited again about public service.

Architects can emerge from this long period of disillusionment. I think of Howard Roark [the protagonist in The Fountainhead]. Here’s an architect dynamiting public housing in St. Louis, as an emblem of the disillusionment of architecture. There’s a real opportunity to move past that. Frankly, the scale of the crisis that we’re emerging from demands it. This is a unique moment for architects.

BR: How is the project you’re here to celebrate today, Via Verde, a mixed-income community going up across the street from us, representative of how you hope the design of community developments will unfold during your tenure as HUD secretary?

SD: It's a very good example of architects reengaging in a way that's on a more humble basis, I would say. The jury wasn't just architects. It incorporated a broad range of disciplines and professions: anthropology, landscape architecture, local elected officials, community leaders, developers.

In terms of the design, unlike much of the public housing design of half a century ago, it’s responsive to its site, it's responsive to the environment, it mixes incomes, and it incorporates community programming, such as farmers’ markets and rooftop gardens. It responds to the community in so many different ways. It’s emblematic of the way architecture and architects can reengage.

BR: For an architect who hears this and gets excited, but maybe has never worked with HUD—how do they begin to facilitate that engagement? How do they get involved?

SD: I encourage architects to reach out to local community groups, government agencies, public housing authorities, and community development corporations. Understand what efforts they have under way. 

HUD will be prioritizing design, and I mean a broad sense of design—not just the architecture but planning as well. We’ll be raising the profile of it, relative to past efforts. But ultimately, architects have to find partners within their communities to be eligible to participate. So really, it’s about reaching out locally.

BR: How has your training as an architect informed your career in policy?

SD: What I appreciated so much about my training is the interdisciplinary way that architects approach problems. The process of being trained in design ideally is about being able to integrate, to bring together different kinds of constituencies.

One of the reasons I became so fascinated with affordable housing, and more broadly community development, is because they connect to so many other things. When a family chooses a home, they're choosing much more than that. They're choosing access to jobs; they're choosing public safety.

Our work at HUD is, by its very nature, deeply interdisciplinary. What I've been very excited about in the Obama administration is that the president has asked all of us to break down the silos that federal agencies have operated in—whether that's collaborating with Ray LaHood, in the Department of Transportation, or Lisa Jackson, [head of the Environmental Protection Agency]; collaborating with [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan on our efforts to bring together better housing; or collaborating with Steve Chu, in Department of Energy, on our greening efforts.

The other thing I would say is that HUD’s current workspace is in an iconic Marcel Breuer building whose design reduces the kind of collaboration and engagement I just talked about. So, good design begins at home, literally and figuratively. I've listened to our agency’s employees and our partners about the important message that our workspace sends out about the kind of agency we are and the way we work.

We will not be able to be a model of collaboration if we don't have a work environment that allows us to collaborate within the department effectively. So we've begun a process with GSA to fundamentally redesign the HUD workspace, which I'm enormously excited about.

BR: Speaking of priorities, President Obama has on his plate financial reform, immigration, energy, Iraq, Afghanistan. But he was also a community organizer. So, with all of those other challenges, where do better communities fall on the administration’s priority level?

SD: I'll never forget going to interview with him and immediately getting the sense that his dedication to the community work we’re doing is personal for him. It's a very high priority.

In terms of creating the first-ever Office of Urban Affairs at the White House level—that was a real signal of the importance of these issues to the president. You've heard him talk, time and again, about the importance of building a green economy, and connecting that to investments in peoples’ homes.

BR: Do you see financial-regulatory reform, which perhaps is the single largest priority right now on the legislative front, having a direct impact and benefit on architects?

SD: Absolutely. Unless we can get a financial system in this country that drives the right kind of investments, we’re never going to have the kind of places in this country that we really want. We need to have a more balanced housing policy, and financial regulatory reform is about creating more balance.

The other thing I would say is, ultimately, whether it's greening our housing or creating more livable communities, the general approach is a highly leveraged transaction. Just about everyone uses a loan. The way that we drive those lending products has an enormous effect on where we invest.

For example: Today when you get a loan, no one asks what you spend on transportation. But, in fact, transportation is the second biggest expense for the average family. So it doesn't make any sense to have a mortgage system that doesn't factor in, “well, if you're going to spend half as much on transportation, you can afford to spend more on housing.”

Setting up a financial system that can drive investment decisions in more rational ways has an enormous amount to do with where we end up putting homes and what our metropolitan areas and rural regions look like. That's one of the things we're doing in our Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities: $10 million to developing a joint housing/transportation affordability index that, if it's precise enough, could be used by lenders.

BR: Final message for architects?

SD: Look at the mistakes we made in the past by not emphasizing design in affordable housing, and not integrating that type of housing more effectively into our communities. We are all living with the consequences. It’s sobering. You don’t have to be an architect to understand the impact that good design can have on somebody’s life.

For too many years, we've effectively marginalized affordable housing: we've marginalized it in the design professions, and we've marginalized it in the way we build public housing. It is financed in a completely separate way from the way we produce other housing in this country.

The opportunity we have with Via Verde and similar projects is that they are integrated with market-rate housing. When you start to do that, it's no longer just affordable housing design. It becomes a broader process.